Tag Archives: John Carpenter

Halloween (2018, David Gordon Green)

Halloween never met a MacGuffin it didn’t embrace. Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride, and director Gordon’s script strings together MacGuffins to make the plot. And if it’s not a MacGuffin, it’s something they’re not going to do anything with. With a handful of exceptions, Halloween is usually at least reasonably acted. Sure, everyone lives in a 2018 where smartphones aren’t omnipresent but the screenwriters probably couldn’t figure out how to update the set pieces they lift from previous Halloween sequels for new technology.

Real quick, just because I probably don’t want to dwell on it–Halloween (2018) recreates some of the previous sequels’ thriller or slasher set pieces. It amps up the violence considerably–the film’s nowhere near as violent after it starts homaging the original Halloween as when it’s trudging through its first act mire. These set piece recreations tend to be extraordinarily violent, like Green is trying to set his Halloween–a sequel only to first film–apart from all the sequels. It’s bloodier. It’s meaner. It’s maybe louder. When Green isn’t luxuriating in the physical graphic violence, he uses the sound for off-screen graphic violence. It’s left up to the imagination.

Only not the result, because he always shows the result.

It seems weird, because for a while Halloween seems to at least be pretending it’s serious. But when Jamie Lee Curtis calls Donald Pleasence-stand in Haluk Bilginer “The New Loomis (Pleasence’s character from previous films, including the original), it’s like Halloween feels comfortable dropping the pretense.

Back to the MacGuffin-filled opening–wait, there’s a third MacGuffin there too–anyway, Halloween opens with Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees as these obnoxious British podcaster producers doing a “Serial” on Michael Myers and the first Halloween. They go see Michael (presumably Nick Castle when he’s got the mask off, but never shown clearly–maybe Green and editor Timothy Alverson’s greatest–and most effective–feat). They bring him into the movie. They go see Jamie Lee Curtis. They mention Judy Greer.

Greer is Curtis’s daughter, who lives in town (the same town from the other Halloween movies because even though both Curtis and Greer suffer from severe mental anxiety and depression, they never want to leave the town). She’s got bland “dad” husband Toby Huss and smart and capable daughter Andi Matichak. Matichak and Curtis ostensibly have a character development arc, but much of it either happens off-screen or when digetic sound is brought over it for effect. The screenwriters avoid the heck out of character for Curtis. With Castle–i.e. what’s happened to the slasher since the slasher movie ended forty years ago–it’s easy. He’s been tied to a stone, silent for forty years. No development whatsoever. Easy.

Curtis, Greer, and Matichak? Not so easy. Greer’s second-billed but barely relevant. She just gets to think her mom is crazy and tell her to get help. Over and over again. Huss should be there to support Greer and he gets more material than her. And, until she’s following in grandma’s final girl footsteps, Matichak gets less than her friends. There’s best girlfriend Virginia Gardner (who’s actually really good), Gardner’s boyfriend Miles Robbins, then Matichak’s boyfriend Dylan Arnold and his bro Drew Scheid.

Matichek gets less to do, outside being hunted by a quinquagenarian masked spree killer, than any of them. The other characters don’t get more development, but at least Gardner and Robbins get stuff to do. Gardner especially. She’s babysitting adorably foul-mouthed near tween Jibrail Nantambu. Another big change in Halloween as it goes on–somewhere in the second act it decides it’s going to do some comedy. The first act doesn’t have any except Hall being a dip and Huss being such a dad.

The frustrating thing about Halloween–not while watching it but while considering it–is how many weird, senseless plotting choices the screenwriters make, apparently for no reason. The film has spared down visuals. Green avoids establishing shots. Possibly because he’s shooting Charleston, South Carolina for mid-sized town Illinois. But probably not. When they’re most important, he’s avoiding them because he’s doing his whole Halloween (2018) is meaner and bloodier and realer.

That tone doesn’t fit with podcasters Hall and Rees. Either they’re jokes, in which case Halloween (2018) is a joke, or they’re serious. But the film kind of wants to take Rees seriously and not Hall. Only Hall’s the noisier one.

With the exception of Curtis, Halloween’s female characters tend to be silent sidekicks to their far less capable male partners. Patton and Curtis know each other–from the first Halloween night–but… it’s not like they get character development. Halloween (2018) doesn’t do character development, because it’s going to deliver an amazing finish. Jamie Lee Curtis vs. Michael Myers, forty years later.

It’s the point of the movie. Curtis has spent forty years arming and training herself to take out Michael Myers. And now she’s going to get to do it.

And the big finale… isn’t boring. It’s dumb. If it weren’t so visually flat, it might be worth some spoof value. Because Halloween (2018) plays like an unaware spoof of itself. Like the screenwriters had something else in mind and Green just sucked the laughs out of it. But Green’s one of the screenwriters.

Halloween (2018) takes itself way too seriously while seeming to know it shouldn’t be taken seriously at all.

Curtis is fine. She and Matichak have potential. She and Patton have potential. The movie explores neither. Matichak’s all right. She’s got very little. Patton’s fine but seems like he should be good. Greer–the movie avoids giving Greer character more than it does Curtis–Greer is hostilely wasted. Like she’s stunt-casted.

The teens–other than Gardner–are all thin, both part and performance; it doesn’t matter.

Gardner’s good. Nantambu’s funny. Not good, but funny.

Technically, nothing leaps out. Green’s direction is fine. It’s never terrible. The script’s weird, but not bad as far as dialogue. Usually. Except the podcasters. And the Donald Pleasence stand-in. Alverson’s editing is good. Simmonds’s photography is flat, visually and in terms of quality. The score–from John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter (yes relation), and Daniel A. Davies–sounds like a Halloween score. Nothing special.

Richard A. Wright’s production design is lacking.

Halloween (2018) is a curiosity. Even though it had the ingredients for something else. Something more. The film’s stunningly unambitious. It’s also passive aggressively hostile to those unfamiliar with the previous movies. While the podcasters fill in a bit, it’s more what’s been happening since the last movie, not what happened in the last movie.

And Curtis gets nothing. Nothing with any of it. Because the script can’t figure out how to make her a protagonist. It can’t figure out a lot of things.

The movie can’t figure out a lot of things. It’s really flimsy and kind of cynical–it’s like a one hundred minute exploration of why you shouldn’t try to make a “serious” movie sequel. To Halloween specifically, but also in general. Again, if it were a spoof–even a dark comedy one–there might be something here.

It’s not. And instead Halloween H40 just a lot of actors wasting their time and some remixed John Carpenter music.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Gordon Green; screenplay by Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride, and Green, based on characters created by John Carpenter and Debra Hill; director of photography, Michael Simmonds; edited by Timothy Alverson; music by John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, and Daniel A. Davies; production designer, Richard A. Wright; produced by Malek Akkad, Jason Blum, and Bill Block; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Jamie Lee Curtis (Laurie), Judy Greer (Karen), Andi Matichak (Allyson), Will Patton (Hawkins), Toby Huss (Ray), Haluk Bilginer (Sartain), Rhian Rees (Dana), Jefferson Hall (Aaron), Virginia Gardner (Vicky), Dylan Arnold (Cameron), Miles Robbins (Dave), Drew Scheid (Oscar), Jibrail Nantambu (Julian), and Nick Castle (Shape).


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Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995, Joe Chappelle)

Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers doesn’t even run ninety minutes and gets boring fast; the last twenty minutes are completely mind-numbing. Nothing makes sense, characters act without motive, cults cult without purpose, it just goes on and on. At least Donald Pleasence is lucky enough to get knocked out for a bunch of it.

Pleasence isn’t in Curse very much. The scenes he does get are usually silly, sort of half expository, half bridging scenes to keep things moving. He has no narrative of his own, which is fine. He’s so uninvolved with the film’s events he shouldn’t have one. Of course, no one gets their own narrative in Curse. At least, nothing approaching a completed one.

Lead Paul Rudd doesn’t. His character survived the first Halloween as a kid, which makes him early-to-mid-twenties. He lives in a boarding house and obsesses over Michael Myers while peeping on new neighbor Marianne Hagan across the street. She’s a single mom moved back in with her family–mom Kim Darby, dad Bradford English, brother Keith Bogart. Devin Gardner plays Hagan’s kid.

So Hagan and Rudd don’t show up for about twenty minutes, maybe a little more–though Rudd does narrate the opening titles, which are set over J.C. Brandy giving birth and then running from Michael and a cult. From a basement. Director Chappelle likes his basements. He likes to poorly direct scenes in them; cinematographer Billy Dickson lights these basement scenes poorly, like everything he lights in the movie. It’s all poorly lighted. Dickson and Chapelle shoot their night exteriors with a lot of blue light. Bright blue light.

Back to Brandy. She’s from the last couple movies but it was a different actress. The movie introduces her in the Rudd voiceover during the titles and there’s no time spent establishing her character. Even though her escape subplot goes on forever, it’s filler. And badly directed. Chappelle badly directs everything in Curse. The movie doesn’t just not having anything to recommend it, it has nil positive elements.

Chappelle’s direction? Bad. Daniel Farrands’s script? Bad. Dickson’s photography? Bad. Randy Bricker’s editing? Bad. Alan Howarth’s music? So bad.

And none of the actors are any good. Once Rudd and Hagan take over the movie, it’s all about Rudd finding Brandy’s baby and then trying to find Pleasence. Meanwhile Hagan’s got a subplot about… nothing? She’s got a couple scenes showing she’s suffering–dad English is physically and mentally abusive, Gardner’s a weird kid–but no subplot. On one hand, it’s good Rudd and Hagan don’t have a romance subplot, but it’s also bad because it’d be so godawful it might be fun to watch.

Rudd’s really bad. Hagan’s better. Darby’s okay. English is bad. Bogart is bad. Mariah O’Brien–as Bogart’s girlfriend–she’s bad. She’s got this subplot about bringing Halloween back to the town. There’s a festival, which doesn’t appear to have actually been staged because Chappelle’s terrible at establishing shots. He, cinematographer Dickson, and editor Bricker are really terrible at tying scenes shot in different locations together. Sure, the plotting is herks and jerks along, but Bricker has no rhythm. There’ll be a bad establishing shot, then a second–longer–bad establishing shot, just on a first unit location. Curse is a visual mess.

Leo Geter is awful as a shock jock who figures in, but not enough.

Mitchell Ryan is in it a few times as Pleasence’s old boss, who wants to hire him back even before Michael Myers returns. Even though Pleasence is clearly not in shape for a nine-to-five.

The jump scares are all cheap, usually red herrings, usually with terrible Howarth music accompanying. But mostly there’s gore instead of scares. But the gore is often insert shots; obvious insert shots. Like Chappelle has something to prove. He can keep finding ways to make the move worse, even as every other “creative” impulse runs out.

Curse is bad. And it goes on too long to be amusing at all in its badness.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Chappelle; screenplay by Daniel Farrands, based on characters created by Debra Hill and John Carpenter; director of photography, Billy Dickson; edited by Randy Bricker; music by Alan Howarth; production designer, Bryan Ryman; produced by Paul Freeman; released by Dimension Films.

Starring Donald Pleasence (Dr. Sam Loomis), Paul Rudd (Tommy Doyle), Marianne Hagan (Kara Strode), Mitchell Ryan (Dr. Terence Wynn), Devin Gardner (Danny Strode), Kim Darby (Debra Strode), Bradford English (John Strode), Keith Bogart (Tim Strode), Mariah O’Brien (Beth), Leo Geter (Barry Simms) and J.C. Brandy (Jamie Lloyd Carruthers).


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Director | John Carpenter, Part 1: The Wonder Years

Between 1974 to 1981, John Carpenter directed five independent feature films–Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, and Escape from New York. Three of those first five films–Dark Star, Precinct 13, Escape–are phenomenal motion pictures and should have established Carpenter as a significant seventies American filmmaker. They did not. Only recently have Carpenter’s accomplishments gotten their due and it’s been a long road. Carpenter, with his casts and crews, innovated–sometimes big time (popularizing POV in Halloween or steadicam usage in Escape), sometimes small (Halloween’s emphasis on female characters)–and created low budget genre films with a far greater depth and ambition than most of their big budget contemporaries.

The able crew of DARK STAR.
The able crew of DARK STAR.

Carpenter’s first film, Dark Star, was a collaboration with fellow University of Southern California film student Dan O’Bannon. They co-wrote the screenplay; Carpenter produced, directed, scored; O’Bannon acted, edited, and did many of the special effects. The film, shot for around $60,000, tells the story of a spaceship on a dumb mission in deep space. It’s always absurd, sometimes touching. Instead of seeing 2001 stoned, Dark Star is “2001 with stoners.” Doofus astronauts who really don’t get along, usually in hilarious ways; they also aren’t equipped–intellectually–for dealing with their mission, which turns out to be their last. Mostly just because they’re so bad at their jobs.

Dark Star (1974). ★★★★. 2006 review
Dark Star (1974). ★★★★. 2006 review

What Dark Star doesn’t have in budget, Carpenter and O’Bannon compensate with ingenuity, whether for special effects or just set design. The film’s got a short present action, forcing the filmmakers to establish characters and settings quickly. And, while the script’s hilarious, it’s through O’Bannon’s editing and Carpenter’s directing Dark Star reaches its rather significant heights. It’s seems like the ending, where the film gets so touching, is all thanks to Carpenter. Of course, O’Bannon is also acting–in the film’s “biggest” role (or at least the one with the most memorable moments)–so he gets to be responsible for a little more of the film’s excellence. Dark Star is the best the (too small) sci-fi comedy genre has to offer, regardless of budget.

In space, no one can hear you scream.
In space, no one can hear you scream.

And the film gets no love, even though it’s had numerous home video releases, including DVD and blu-ray special editions. Unfortunately, the latest blu-ray edition does not contain the sixty-eight minute version of the film–Carpenter and O’Bannon’s cut–and instead includes only the padded out theatrical release. The film’s very “un-Carpenter” and very low budget for its concept, which probably–and tragically–hinders more interest. It never even got interest for its “hunt the alien” sequence, which O’Bannon basically repeated a few years later in, you know, Alien. Not even being a proto-Alien in parts can get Dark Star love.

Austin Stoker, Laurie Zimmer, and Darwin Joston  have had a rough night.
Austin Stoker, Laurie Zimmer, and Darwin Joston have had a rough night.

In addition to getting some love with his next film, Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter also established a number of his early output’s tropes–he’s shooting in Panavision, he’s got Charles Cyphers and Nancy Kyes in supporting roles, he’s working filmic miracles without a lot of money. Precinct 13 has a relatively simple story–a police precinct under siege from a gang–albeit with quite a bit of setup and a nice assorted cast to get through said siege. There’s competition, tragedy, romance, friendship, fear, and a lot of jaw-dropping action. Even more jaw-dropping considering the film’s low budget. Carpenter handles the editing himself (along with the music) and brings cinematographer Douglas Knapp along from Dark Star, but their visual collaboration here is leagues ahead of that film.

Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston star in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, directed by John Carpenter for Turtle Releasing.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). ★★★★. 2013 review

Unlike Dark Star, which felt like a collaboration between Carpenter and O’Bannon, Precinct 13 is all Carpenter. He’s outrageous, he’s subtle, he’s sensitive, he’s vicious. The script is lean, but full of material for the actors, even in the smallest roles. There’s a sterile precision in its wide Panavision frame, but still a good deal of warmth. I’ve seen the film almost a dozen times and there’s always something else to find in it. Carpenter’s assured and enthusiastic in his film with his name possessively above the title. And the cast is phenomenal.

The end of a quiet night.
The end of a quiet night.

Assault on Precinct 13–after apparently being forgotten for about twenty years–got a lot of home video attention in the late nineties. Not just LaserDisc, but also a letterboxed VHS so people could finally appreciate Carpenter and Knapp’s Panavision composition. After some lackluster DVD releases, the film finally has a nice blu-ray release; people now get to see Assault on Precinct 13 for the first time not just widescreen, but with a great transfer. And, to a certain extent, people are seeing it. It doesn’t have the recognition it deserves–Carpenter films rarely do–but it’s got a far better one than it once did.

The Babysitters Club.
The Babysitters Club.

Carpenter’s third film is still his biggest hit. The simple story of a confused young man visiting his hometown on Halloween. Sure, he’s an inhuman, murderous psychopath on a killing spree, but it’s still a pretty simple film. Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill split the film between Donald Pleasence (in his first of three memorable performances for Carpenter) hunting the psychopath–Pleasence was the boy’s questionably capable therapist–and three teenage girls who become the killer’s targets. Nancy Kyes is back–memorably, as always–as one of the targets, along with Jamie Lee Curtis (who would also work with Carpenter again until legitimate stardom) and P.J. Soles. Charles Cyphers is back. Besides being the first film where Carpenter worked with Hill (who also produced), it’s also his first film with Dean Cundey as cinematographer, kicking off a quintet of five stunning collaborations. Carpenter handles the music himself; it’s his most famous score.

Halloween (1978). ★★★. 2008 review
Halloween (1978). ★★★. 2008 review

As far as the film itself goes, I appreciate it. I do appreciate Halloween. I’m not a particularly big fan of the film, but I do appreciate it. It’s spectacularly made, but there’s just something off about it. As writers, Hill and Carpenter split tasks–she handled the teenage girls, he handled the manhunt. When the two plot lines come together, it gets messy and doesn’t end anywhere near as well as it should. But it’s a technical masterpiece, no doubt. Some excellent acting, some not so excellent acting. Great music, which does too much work. Halloween ends up being either too much of one thing or not enough of another.

The uncanny and the mundane.
The uncanny and the mundane.

For a long time, Halloween was Carpenter’s de facto most popular film. At least until the late nineties. It didn’t cease being his most popular film because of anything he did, rather because in the early days of DVD, Anchor Bay littered stores with various editions. Yes, they had a spectacular initial one, but then they kept double, triple, and quadruple dipping until it became a pain to find the right one. They might have even released it pan and scan, which is a travesty not just because it ruins Carpenter and Cundey’s composition, but because the film’s widescreen release was a big deal. Criterion released a special edition LaserDisc in the mid–1990s, with audio commentary, letterboxed, with the TV edition footage (which Anchor Bay later tracked down widescreen, something Criterion said didn’t exist) and Halloween got elevated to a better position. It wasn’t just the first in a slasher franchise. The double and triple-dipping has continued–exhaustively–into blu-ray. There’s finally a decent edition or two, but enthusiasm for the film has waned as audiences discovered there’s a lot more to John Carpenter than Halloween. There was probably also some franchise fatigue.

“It’s midnight and we’ve just started into the witching hour.”

Following Halloween’s financial success (it was the highest grossing independent film for a couple decades), Hill and Carpenter tried another horror film with The Fog. “There’s something in the fog,” the poster warns, with Jamie Lee Curtis trying to keep something monstrous outside. It’s a very big cast and Carpenter’s first use of well-known actors (outside Donald Pleasence anyway)–Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook–plus John Houseman in a cameo. As far as returning actors, in addition to Curtis, Charles Cyphers and Nancy Kyes are back–along with a cameo from Darwin Joston (from Assault on Precinct 13). The cast also includes Adrienne Barbeau and Tom Aktins, who’d both work with Carpenter again. The Fog is a ghost story with graphic violence and monsters and people on the run from the ghosts, who live in–you guessed it–The Fog. Cundey’s back on cinematography, Carpenter’s back on score.

The Fog (1980). ★★½. 2009 review
The Fog (1980). ★★½. 2009 review

The Fog is a spectacular looking film. Even better looking than Halloween, with Cundey and Carpenter having a great time doing California seaside. There are some excellent special effects, there are some good performances, some fine moments in the script, some excellent sequences. It’s a technical champ. It’s also got the same serious dramatic problems when bringing all the pieces together. Just like in Halloween, Carpenter and Hill can’t quite transition things together neatly enough. The script gets too bumpy. But The Fog’s still gorgeous.

“Suddenly, out of the night, the fog rolled in. For a moment, they could see nothing, not a foot in front of them. Then, they saw a light.”

Even though The Fog got a special edition LaserDisc around the same time as the other early Carpenter films in the nineties, it’s never really caught on. Growing up, I always knew about it as another of Jamie Lee Curtis’s scream queen movies and not a significant one. There’s an excellent blu-ray for interested viewers, but the film doesn’t seem to get discovered often. Maybe its successes are too technical and not engaging enough. But it has gotten a far better reputation than it once had.

Call him Snake.
Call him Snake.

Carpenter’s last film from this period, before going Hollywood, is Escape from New York. It’s his last film with Hill for fifteen years (until the sequel) and it’s his last film with Jamie Lee Curtis’s involvement–she provides a voice over. It’s also his first film with Alan Howarth associating with him on the score. It’s also his first film with Larry J. Franco producing (Hill’s not on the script here, just coproducing); Franco and Carpenter would work together for the rest of the eighties. Charles Cyphers is back for a bit, along with Donald Pleasence (in something of “guest starring” role). Adrienne Barbeau gets the closest thing to a female lead. But the star–besides the exceptional visual effects–is Kurt Russell. He’s a renegade bank robber in the future who has to go into New York City–now a prison island run by various gangs–and rescue Pleasence (in the future, U.S. Presidents come from Worksop, UK). Along the way he runs into oddballs like Ernest Borgnine and Harry Dean Stanton, not to mention Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York. Tom Atkins is back in a small part, playing second fiddle to Lee Van Cleef’s future cop. They’re the ones forcing Russell to do the rescue. Action, glorious action, ensues. All beautifully shot by Dean Cundey.

A scene from ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, directed by John Carpenter for Embassy Pictures.
Escape from New York (1981). ★★★★. 2011 review

Escape from New York is John Carpenter doing his biggest budget action movie and it’s phenomenal. The film moves at a great pace, with Carpenter hurtling Russell through the story. Escape only slows down once–and only for a few minutes–and then it races even faster towards its conclusion. Carpenter’s direction is inventive and deliberate; he knows when to restrain the film and when to let it go wild. And he does let it go wild. Only, with a lot of control. Wild, but with a lot of control. It’s the culmination of everything he’s been working on. Maybe not the humor of Dark Star, but everything else. It’s one of the great action movies.

EXT. WORLD TRADE CENTER -- NIGHT The plane comes down.  It hits hard.  Snake puts on the brakes, adds a grappling hook, and finally comes to a stop right at the edge.
EXT. WORLD TRADE CENTER — NIGHT
The plane comes down. It hits hard. Snake puts on the brakes, adds a
grappling hook, and finally comes to a stop right at the edge.

Back in the nineties, when New Line Home Video released Escape from New York on LaserDisc and on a special edition VHS, Carpenter’s career had hit the skids. He had just made a Chevy Chase comedy, but here was this fantastic movie with a nice new video release. A fantastic movie a lot of people hadn’t seen, at least not letterboxed. Escape from New York had that memorable poster–the Statue of Liberty crashed down in the middle of Manhattan–and had been a hit on release, but it didn’t have the best VHS life. At least not into the nineties. New Line really saved it and kicked off a reevaluation of Carpenter’s early work. Since that first release, the film has had some weak DVD releases (New Line either lost the license or gave it up) until finally getting a blu-ray from Shout! Factory. Now everyone can see Escape from New York. But it hasn’t really caught on again like it did back in the nineties. It’s overdue for another rediscovery.

The best John Carpenter film is The Thing, which was the film he made right after Escape from New York (when he went Hollywood). Unless you’re talking about best in terms of most inventive filmmaking, in which case it’s Assault on Precinct 13. Unless you’re talking about best in terms of most ambitious–and successful–filmmaking, in which case it’s Escape from New York. Unless you’re talking about best in terms of moment-to-moment entertainment, in which case it’s Dark Star. Carpenter might not get the respect and regard he deserves, but at least people can finally see how beautifully and exquisitely he made his first films.


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Director | John Carpenter, Part 2: The Studio Quartet

With the summer 1982 release of The Thing, John Carpenter finally fully arrived in Hollywood; he’d made a studio picture. And he didn’t come alone. He brought cinematographer Dean Cundey, who shot all of he and Debra Hill’s films, and at least three from Escape from New York: editor Todd C. Ramsey, co-producer Larry J. Franco, and star Kurt Russell. The Thing would start an entirely new chapter in Carpenter’s filmmaking. Even with some of the same “pieces,” cast or crew, this period would be very different from what came before.

Four films, one for Universal (The Thing), one for Fox (Big Trouble in Little China), and two for Columbia (Christine and Starman), comprise this period of Carpenter’s career. Two with aliens, two with Russell and Cundey, two with famous composers, two with Carpenter and Alan Howarth composing, all with Franco involved to some degree. Carpenter ambitiously mounts these productions, occasionally with mixed results, occasionally with goodness, occasionally with horrifying brilliance.

Kurt Russell finding a quiet moment amid the screams of THE THING.
Kurt Russell finding a quiet moment amid the screams of THE THING.

That horrifying brilliance is The Thing. It’s one of Carpenter’s only two remakes. The Thing From Another World already showed up in Halloween, a movie playing on TV during some of that film’s action, and Carpenter had started paying director homage to Howard Hawks productions with his second film, Assault on Precinct 13. Hawks produced the original Thing.

The Thing is a different film for Carpenter in terms of budget (two and a half times Escape from New York’s $6 million) as well as producers. He doesn’t have comrade Debra Hill standing offside producing, he’s got David Foster and Lawrence Turman, a team of mainstream Hollywood guys. With the exception of this film, their best work was always apart (i.e. The Getaway and The Graduate separately, Short Circuit 2 together). There’s also an Ennio Morricone score: orchestral, Gothic and terrifying, not the traditional Carpenter synthesizers. The film’s screenplay (written by Burt Lancaster’s son, Bill; his only other credits were a couple of the Bad News Bears movies!) moves the action from Another World’s Arctic airbase to an Antarctic research station. While the film’s initially sci-fi discovery, it soon moves into a horrifying ordeal.

A scene from THE THING, directed by John Carpenter for Universal Pictures.
The Thing (1982). ★★★★. 2008 review

The Thing is a serious, depressing, exciting, exhausting film. Carpenter’s direction is phenomenal–he’s doing people in claustrophobic, dangerous situations, which he’s done before, but never like The Thing. There’s not much else like it. Cundey’s photography is magnificent, whether he’s doing the talking heads scenes or the phantasmagoria. The film’s Rob Bottin effects are breathtaking; Carpenter knows how to direct the effects, knows how to integrate them into the narrative, knows how to get the actors to work with them. It’s probably Carpenter’s best film. The scope of it, the subtle mix of genres, that Morricone music threatening throughout. It’s so good.

Russell discovers remnants of the Swedes' discovery.
Russell discovers the remnants of the Swedes’ discovery.

Still, if there were one John Carpenter film I thought would never catch on, it’s The Thing. It’s beyond gory, it’s hostile in its despondence, there aren’t any women; sure, it’s brilliant, but no one seemed to notice in 1982–it got terrible reviews and was a box office disappointment–and I never thought they’d come around. When I saw it at fourteen, I immediately convinced my dad to watch it before I returned the VHS rental. He’d never seen the film (thanks to those bad reviews) and The Thing is one of those movies you want to share. Or at least you did, but now everyone’s seen it. And they’ve seen it widescreen, which was impossible in the eighties and difficult in the nineties (there was a letterboxed laserdisc). It actually may have gone too far–I remember seeing someone tweet a day couldn’t go by without a random guy trying to telling someone else they just have to see The Thing.

Still, everyone should see The Thing.

Roberts Blossom tries to warn young whippersnappers Keith Gordon and John Stockwell about CHRISTINE.
Roberts Blossom tries to warn young whippersnappers Keith Gordon and John Stockwell about CHRISTINE.

After The Thing, and its disappointments, Carpenter headed to the relatively safe world of the Stephen King adaptation. Christine, released in 1983, is from before Stephen King adaptation ubiquity, but only just. Carpenter brings back Harry Dean Stanton for a supporting part (he’s the only actor from a previous Carpenter film–Escape from New York) and Alan Howarth to collaborate on the score, but otherwise it’s an all-new cast and crew. It’s also an all-new studio–Columbia–and a cast of teenagers (or actors playing teenagers) in a high school movie. Sure, it’s about a killer car, but it’s a killer car in high school. With a soundtrack of fifties pop hits; well, except Bad to the Bone. There’s a lot of undeniable personality to the film, problems or not.

Keith Gordon stars in CHRISTINE, directed by John Carpenter for Columbia Pictures.
Christine (1983). ★½. 2012 review

The film’s beautifully made–Carpenter might not have Cundey shooting it, but Donald M. Morgan does a fantastic job on the cinematography. Christine looks phenomenal, both in the setup, suspense, and special effects; though the first half is better directed than the rest, mostly because the material’s better. Carpenter’s got a weak lead in Keith Gordon, but a solid everyman in supporting star John Stockwell. Carpenter also does get one of Alexandra Paul’s best performances. Maybe not an amazing achievement, but an achievement nonetheless.

The machine of a dream, such a clean machine, With the pistons a pumpin', and the hubcaps all gleam.
The machine of a dream, such a clean machine, >With the pistons a pumpin’, and the hubcaps all gleam.

For a Stephen King adaptation, Christine has had a relatively successful reputation. It’s not a genre with many standouts, technical or otherwise, which does put Carpenter’s contribution ahead by default. When I first started hunting down Carpenter films to watch, Christine was always on the “last to see” list of his pre-nineties work. Technical accomplishment and acceptable Alexandra Paul performance aside, it’s still just a Stephen King adaptation. One with a not-entirely undeserved okay reputation to this day.

The smiley, happy people of John Carpenter's STARMAN.
The smiley, happy people of John Carpenter’s STARMAN.

Carpenter’s next film, again at Columbia, again with Morgan on photography (and Marion Rothman also returning from Christine on edits), is his most “Hollywood.” Well, his most successful “Hollywood” film. Not because of content (a space alien clones himself the body of recently deceased blue collar dude, Jeff Bridges, much to the surprise and consternation of the widow, Karen Allen) or the setting (crossing the country from Wisconsin to Arizona), but because of the production backstory. Michael Douglas produced the film, Bridges and Allen both should’ve been bigger stars at the time (1984) than they were, an uncredited Dean Riesner spent years rewriting it for various directors. A lot about the film–starting with the casting of Raiders of the Lost Ark star Allen and American Graffiti co-star Charles Martin Smith–makes Starman seem like grown-up, mainstream, grounded sci-fi from the Spielberg or Lucas stable.

Karen Allen and Jeff Bridges star in STARMAN, directed by John Carpenter for Columbia Pictures.
Starman (1984). ★★½. 2014 review

Much like Christine, Carpenter (and Morgan) do a fantastic job on Starman, but again the script just isn’t there to support them. Carpenter does a lot of work with the actors–it’s the only love story in his oeuvre–and he navigates the film to something of a success. The script problems, seven rewrites or not, are just too much to overcome. The set pieces just don’t fit with the film Carpenter ends up making, even if they are memorable–“yellow means go very fast.” It’s almost like he doesn’t know why he needs them; they’re so at odds with the way he’s plotted his films to that point.

There’s also a wonderful score from Jack Nitzsche.

On the run through scenic America, or: John Carpenter on location.
On the run through scenic America, or: John Carpenter on location.

Starman’s legacy is probably Carpenter’s most troubled. It was relatively successful on release, very much so on VHS, yet it appealed far more to the Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen demographic than the John Carpenter. Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment never even got around to rereleasing it domestically with a Carpenter and Jeff Bridges audio commentary (from the UK release). Instead, they put it off until the blu-ray release; market research must’ve determined there wasn’t much “double dipping” potential for Starman. However, it does seem like the film enthusiast prejudice against the film–John Carpenter doing a sci-fi love story with a super cute Jeff Bridges–has fizzled. Unfortunately it’s been more out of disinterest than anything else. Starman is a perfectly solid eighties movie. It doesn’t transcend its problems, which makes it difficult for a rediscovery.

Kim Cattrall and Kurt Russell have found some BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. Wokka wokka.
Kim Cattrall and Kurt Russell have found some BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. Wokka wokka.

Carpenter’s final studio film of the eighties–Big Trouble in Little China is a bit like old home week. Kurt Russell is back in the lead, Dean Cundey is on photography, Larry J. Franco is producing, Alan Howarth is back. It’s also the only time Carpenter made a film released through 20th Century Fox. And what a film. Russell’s an obnoxious truck driver who bumbles his way into a magical Chinatown gang war. He’s got Victor Wong and Dennis Dun as his sidekicks and Kim Cattrall as his love interest. Of course, Russell’s also an idiot and it takes all of his compatriots to save the day. There’s magic, martial arts, fistfights, stolen semis, magic–wait, I already said magic. More magic. Lots of magic. Lots of humor. Lots of martial arts fisticuffs.

Kim Cattrall, Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun and Suzee Pai are in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, directed by John Carpenter for 20th Century Fox.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986). ★★★. 2014 review

I was never much of a Big Trouble fan growing up. I saw it in pieces on HBO at friends’ houses, I’m sure I watched it on VHS at least once, but I never cared for it. I had a problem with absurdist humor for a long, long time, but of all Carpenter’s mainstream efforts–leaving something utterly hostile like The Thing out of consideration–it’s the most successful. Russell’s hilarious, Cattrall excels through his idiocy, Dun and Wong are both good. Villain James Hong is awesome. There’s also quite a bit of technical achievement, between Carpenter doing a lot of fight scenes and then he and Cundey’s ability to mix harsh reality, ornate Chinese decoration, American stupidity, and special effects. Big Trouble is from 1986–twelve years after Dark Star–and Carpenter’s only gotten better with how he handles humor. It’s finally accessible. So long as the viewer is ready for a buffoon “hero.”

Even though Big Trouble in Little China was such a box office bomb it sent Carpenter back to independent filmmaking, it almost immediately found a rather big audience through home video and pay cable. Just because I didn’t like the movie as a kid didn’t mean most people agreed with me. Fox even gave it a nice two disc special edition DVD–now long out of print–back in the early days of catalog DVD. More recently, however, it does seem like the least regarded of Carpenter’s popular films. Maybe not in terms of people undervaluing it, but definitely in terms of overlooking or just forgetting its existence. Even though the brand has gone through an unexpected resurgence in the last few years, along with occasional remake talk, it hasn’t led to more appreciation of the film itself.

What's that? Oh, some more BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA! (Wokka wokka).
What’s that? Oh, some more BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA! (Wokka wokka).

Looking back now at this period of Carpenter’s films, it’s depressing. Things weren’t clicking. But at the time, if you’d just discovered him with Halloween and Escape from New York, you’d have been thrilled. The Thing is a peak, one very few filmmakers are going to reach. Christine’s good enough for a studio horror programmer. Starman’s interesting enough for a misfire. Big Trouble works its ass off to great result. Sure, there would’ve been bumps, but Carpenter ends this period on an uptick. He’s figured out how to make a studio picture by Big Trouble in Little China.

Of Carpenter’s four studio films, two made money, two didn’t. The better two didn’t. If it had been the other way around, who knows? But it’s the end of Carpenter’s significant output as a director. Not as a filmmaker, but definitely as a director. So how can’t it be depressing.


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